The Christmas festivities planned by Mara, a "Brehon" who dispenses justice in 16th-century Ireland, are spoiled by the murder of a fellow judge.
Although Mara (Sting of Justice, 2009, etc.) normally works in Burren, Christmas 1519 finds her and her scholars at the Castle of Bunratty at Thomond, the principal seat of her husband, King Turlough Donn O’Brien, who’s celebrating 20 years of rule. The connubial reunion is welcome, for although the royal couple have been married for 10 years and have a lively young son, they often spend long periods apart. Turlough is a genial man and a good soldier, but his succession is jeopardized by Conor, his oldest son, who’s sickly and unlikely to be accepted by his people. Mara quickly realizes that the unpleasant undercurrents she’s picked up are connected to Brehon MacClancy, whose statements contain subtle threats against unknown enemies of the king. When MacClancy is discovered dead in a room filled with some of the king’s closest friends and several observant children, Mara resolves to find the killer. Brehon law has a set fine for every offense. Even murder is punishable by fines, not physical punishment. Mara has the unpleasant duty of questioning people she knows well. Even one of her former scholars has a motive for killing the unpopular old man. A vicious attack on Mara by an assailant who leaves her for dead makes it clear that the killer will stop at nothing to escape detection.
The information on Brehon law that prefaces each chapter adds historical interest to this diverting mystery, even if Mara is no match for Peter Tremayne’s seventh-century Brehon Sister Fidelma.